The Recipe Doctor Takes on Tex-Mex Cuisine

Try these healthier versions of favorite Southwestern dishes

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

What's not to like about a cuisine that features pinto and black beans; fresh tomatoes; corn; all types of peppers; cheese; fish; and lean beef, chicken, and pork that is fall-off-the-bone tender?

Tex-Mex -- the Americanized version of Mexican cuisine -- has more than a few things going for it, nutritionally speaking. But despite those basically healthy ingredients, Tex-Mex cuisine can easily cross the border into high-calorie, high-fat territory. It all depends on how you cook it, and what you add.

Here are some tips for cooking (and eating) Tex-Mex the healthier way, along with recipes for two lightened-up Southwestern favorites.

What's Great About Tex-Mex?

The beans are a huge bonus, adding fiber, plant protein, and phytochemicals. Whenever I make or order Mexican food, I always try to include beans. Most of us don't eat enough beans, and Mexican food is the perfect way to work in a serving.

Another great nutritional plus of Tex-Mex cuisine is the tomatoes, tomatoes, everywhere! They're the base for salsa and other sauces (like enchilada sauce), and are a common garnish for entrees.

Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C and phytochemicals like the antioxidant lycopene, which may help protect against breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer.

Cooked tomato sauces are especially good sources of lycopene. That's because the heating process makes carotenoids (including lycopene) more easily absorbed by the body.

What's Not so Great About Tex-Mex?

So what needs improvement in this colorful, flavorful cuisine we all love so much?

First, there's the little matter of lard. Many of the Mexican food products sold in the United States do not contain lard, but it is still used in some Mexican recipes. When I'm cooking something like tamales, I like to use a lower-fat margarine blended with some fat-free sour cream and a sprinkle of chicken broth powder instead of lard.

Then there's the fact that many of our favorite Tex-Mex dishes are deep-fried. I don't have to tell you how this cooking method boosts the calories and fat grams, do I? The good news is that nearly all of these foods can be made with only a light brushing of oil (or a light canola oil spray) and baked, as with oven-fried flautas or chimichangas.

You can make a crispy taco or tostada shell by coating a nonstick frying pan with a little canola cooking spray, and heating a tortilla on medium heat, flipping often until it starts to crisp. If you're making tacos, shape the tortilla quickly into a taco shape. It will continue to crisp up as it cools.

Another Tex-Mex diet-buster is fatty add-ons, such as cheese or sour cream.

You have two fat-cutting choices with the cheese: You can use full-fat cheese, but half the amount; or you can use reduced-fat cheese at the amount called for in the recipe.

And you can trim 60 calories and 12 grams of fat per 1/4 cup of sour cream by switching to a great-tasting fat-free sour cream.

What about the meat fillings? Chorizo, the chili-flavored sausage, is your highest-calorie, highest-fat option; a 2-ounce serving has about 260 calories and 22 grams of fat.

Beyond that, your choice of filling generally comes down to beef, pork, chicken, or fish. The best filling choice depends on whether you're using a lean or fatty cut, and how much fat you add to it during cooking. Generally, fish and chicken are the best choices (as long as the chicken is skinless and the fish isn't breaded and fried).

Let's do the math: Flour tortillas have up to 150 calories each, corn tortillas about 50 calories. The flour types have around 30% calories from fat, compared with 10% for corn tortillas. Flour tortillas have about 140 milligrams of sodium, while corn tortillas have just 1 milligram. So corn is your clear choice here.

"To chip...or not to chip."

But if you deep-fry either type of tortilla, it doesn't matter which you've chosen. They'll both come up loaded with grease and calories. So go for the "soft" taco option whenever you can.

To Chip or Not to Chip

When dining out Mexican, you inevitably end up face-to-face with a basket of tempting tortilla chips. If you can enjoy one big handful of chips and then hold off until your meal comes, you'll add about 140 calories (with about half the calories coming from fat). So if you can't stop at a handful, you might want to move that basket to the table next to you.

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